Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Do you remember the Hallelujah Mountains of Pandora in the movie Avatar? I’m talking about the mist covered floating mountains where Sam Worthington’s crew fought their final battle, fighting digitally recreated flying chickens played by Andy Serkis.

Allegedly,the Hallelujah Mountains were based on a real place in China. If the government officials of Zhangjiajie (张家界)are to be believed, James Cameron MUST have based his idea of the fictional mountains in his blockbuster on the peaks of Wulingyuan (武陵园).

When James Cameron visited China to promote Avatar, he said he actually got his inspiration from Huang Shan in Anhui. Of course, the government officials of Zhangjiajie heard this and they promptly responded by rearing Andy Serkis in the mountains. No, seriously, they renamed one of Wulingyuan’s peaks as the “Avatar Hallelujah Peak”. They had a marketing strategy and they were not going to let any snooty director destroy it.

I did not know about Zhangjiajie or Wulingyuan prior to our visit to China. But we’ve heard so much about it from other travellers that (even though I know it would probably involve more stairs and staring at more rocks) we felt we just had to go for a visit. Going to Zhangjiajie was part of the reason why we decided to abandon going to Xinjiang, and also why we went through a big detour east to Xi’an in the first place. (Xi’an is a transport hub that allows us to travel from the Gansu province to Hubei where Wulingyuan is in)

Anyway, the first part of our trek through the Senlin Gongyuan (森林公园)was pleasant enough. We walked through a forested area surrounded by obscenely sized (and shaped) karst formations, and for most of the hike, we have with a nice stream running along beside us.

金鞭溪 or Golden Whip Stream - partly named because the fishes in the stream, defying all known laws for fish survival, will periodically flip over and literally FLASH everyone... including eagles and other birds of prey

Walking along the stream, dwarfed by huge karst formations and Monkey! playing with monkeys

Not walking was apparently an option too... for a price, of course

As expected, our guide, Xiao Li would stop periodically and point out rock formations such as “The face of Ji Gong”, “Piggy snatching his bride”, and “Journey to the West” to us. But I think after the umpteenth time she caught me rolling my eyes, she used the mother of all cover up phrases – that looking at the formation requires “30% seeing, 70% imagination”.

"The face of Ji Gong", "Piggy Carrying Bride" and "Man drinking water"

This was also when things started to get a bit… interesting. We reached a fork in the road, and Xiao Li gave us the option of ascending to the higher levels via the Bailong Sky Elevator (百龙天梯) at 100RMB a pop, OR we can walk uphill for 1.5 hours via 999999999 steps WITH NO VIEW.

Literally hitting the wall early at the foot of the stairs

Being the cheapskate that we are, Wanting to challenge ourselves, we of course chose the steps. What we did not realize was that this meant Xiao Li would have to climb with us too. Apparently, being our guide, she could’ve gotten a free ride up if we had taken the elevator. However, she gamely trooped up the stairs with us, teaching us how to sing Miao folk songs all the way up… never mind the fact that I had problems catching my breath as it is.

Xiao Li bounced on ahead of us, singing the whole way... How do you spell R-E-S-P-E-C-T?

I think all of you probably know by now that I am going to go on about how the view at the top of the steps were gorgeous and the how climb was totally worth it. But the climb was actually worth it for another reason.

At the top of the steps, we saw Andy Serkis.

No, seriously, we saw tonnes of Chinese tourists posing on top of polyester Ikran birds, and getting their faces Photoshopped onto Avatar posters. There were also many tourists who were (seriously) crowing/squawking at the top of their voices. I think they were trying to get the attention of pubescent birds in the area.

But yeah… the views at the top of the steps were gorgeous and the climb was totally worth it.

It was really foggy when we reached the top of the stairs. Honestly, I thought we were screwed... but the fog started to clear...

And the scenery was fully revealed. Turns out the fog was the best thing that could happen to us. Seeing the largest concentration of karst formations IN THE WORLD amidst the mist was kind of surreal. It makes us think that we are not really on earth anymore...

It also showed us how high we really were... you'd think that we wouldn't be surprised given how many steps we've just climbed

But the view is truly gorgeous... and includes such classic rock formations as "Number One Natural Bridge Under the Sky" (their words, not mine) and my personal favourite "Open Door See Mountain"

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